Andrew Carter is the Chief Executive of Centre for Cities. Their new report on reaching net zero can be read here.
The Government wants the UK to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This is the right thing to do, both from an environmental perspective and from an economic one. ‘Greening’ the economy will create hundreds of thousands of new, future-proofed, higher paid jobs and help the Government on its mission build back better from the pandemic and level up our left behind cities and towns.
However, it’s an ambitious target and, while many people support the idea of reaching net zero on paper, that support drops if they think it will inconvenience their way of life or introduce a financial cost to them.
The UK’s carbon emissions from industry have fallen significantly in the last 30 years due to de-industrialisation. While this is a good thing, it means that most of our remaining emissions – more than 60 per cent – now come from homes and transport. Reducing these will inevitably mean people having to change the way they live, work and travel and, because the majority of people live and work in our largest cities and towns, most of these changes will need to happen in them.
The Government has an important role to play in this process. The importance to net zero, of where and what type of housing gets built raises the issue of planning reform – already a sensitive topic for Conservative MPs and councillors in southern England given the party’s recent defeat in Chesham and Amersham. Despite this, changes to the way we get homes built are absolutely vital if the UK is to reach net zero by 2050.
The bureaucratic case-by-case nature of our current planning system reduces the overall number of new homes that get built and pushes development to the very outer fringes of our cities. Think about the typical new build developments – isolated detached homes hidden on the fringes of cities where the fewest people can object to them.
Homes on these types of developments account for an increasing share of new builds; nearly eight in ten new homes are houses. Unfortunately, they are also the very worst type of new home for the climate. A new house typically emits 67 per cent more carbon than a flat. This gap has widened in recent years – between 2013 and 2019 emissions from new flats fell by 18 per cent, compared with just 11 per cent for new houses.
To tackle this problem the Government needs to press ahead with its planning reforms and make it easier to build new, more energy efficient flats and terraced houses on better connected brownfield land closer to city and town centres. It will have to hold strong in the face of opposition from its own backbenchers and councillors who oppose development in their areas but doing this is essential to achieving its net zero ambitions as well as helping to solve the housing crisis.
Pushing new homes to the isolated edges of cities and towns also encourages car dependency – further increasing carbon emissions. Currently two thirds of all journeys in our largest cities and towns are made by private car. To halve emissions from these journeys, the number being made by public transport will need to rise to two thirds.
To really reduce emissions to the level that the Government needs to reach its net zero target, it will also need to take bolder action to actively disincentivise car usage in our cities. The pandemic has shown that repurposing street space given over to cars to other more productive and enjoyable uses, such as outside dining, can be done. The Government also needs to encourage more local councils to introduce Clean Air Zones – similar to London’s ULEZ – that charge the drivers of the most polluting vehicles.
Of course, this will need to be done fairly and carefully: people still need to get around, so private car charges should be coupled with tangible improvements to cycle provision and the public transport networks to bring people faster, cheaper, and more regular bus services.
If the Government were to do this and reduce car usage by a third, carbon emissions from cities and large towns would halve. This would be a big step in reaching net zero by 2050. However, it presents the Government with a political problem: many Conservative Party activists and potential voters are pro-car so, as with planning reform, the Government risks alienating more of its traditional supporters in the pursuit of net zero.
Ultimately, despite the likely opposition, there are real benefits to the Government delivering on its commitment to net zero. Not only would it mean the UK plays a ‘Global Britain’ leadership role in the fight against climate change, it could also help the Government deliver its levelling up goals through the creation of better paid green jobs up and down the country.
The size of the prize is big. If these policies, targeted at our largest cities and towns, where the majority of people live and work, were implemented it would get the Government a quarter of the way to meeting its net zero target. However, achieving this depends on whether the Government is willing to risk straining its electoral coalition. To govern is to choose.